Keep the Operations Research Name!

A few years ago, INFORMS spent significant amounts of money on its “Science of Better” campaign in an effort to brand the phrase “Operations Research”.  This was not an easy or uncontroversial decision.  Even choosing “Operations Research” was controversial.  Practically everyone agrees that it is a lousy name for a field:  it is uninformative and easily confused with many other fields.  But it is the historical name for the field, and trying to rebrand our field with a new name looked (and looks) hopeless.  So “Operations Research” it is, and the Science of Better campaign tried to get people to associate the phrase with success, competitive advantage, and all sorts of other good things.  People like Tom Cook, Irv Lustig, and many others put in tremendous efforts to get this campaign going.

By its nature, an advertising campaign for an idea is a hard thing to do, particularly for a society  of just 12,000 or so.  Spending a million or two was possible, but not tens or hundreds of millions.  That 30 second ad at the Super Bowl was right out.  The campaign did lots of interesting things, some of which (like the website and the enhanced Edelman Award) continue, but it is hard to find a meter that moved because of the campaign.  Despite that, I am very happy we had the campaign:  it reminded a lot of us as to the value of our field, and let others know of that value.

However, just as cities like Pittsburgh get tremendous advertising by being backdrops for national sporting event telecasts, our field gets its best advertising just in how departments and schools get mentioned.  In the New York Times today there is an article on how students at Princeton are having trouble getting jobs on Wall Street.  While the overall tenor of the article is depressing, the phrases that include operations research are very nice:

Despite being in the rigorous Operations Research and Financial Engineering program, …

…vast armies of Wall Street recruiters have traditionally taken over the historic Nassau Inn nearby to woo not just Operations Research and Financial Engineering whizzes but innocent art history majors as well.

Sure, it would be better to have been part of an article on how everyone in operations research is getting a $250,000 job and guaranteed life-fulfillment, but having the New York Times readers associate “operations research” with rigor and woo-ability is an association that we literally cannot buy.

So if you are part of a department (either in academia or business) considering replacing “operations research” with a trendier name (“analytics”, “business intelligence”, “information engineering” and so on), you might want to fight that move:  consider the fate of all the groups who went with “eBusiness” and “web” ten years ago.  And those of you who changed to something more “with-it”:  come on back!  There is still room under the umbrella for you.  You can be part of the “operations research” success.

Note added 7PM: I see the tagline on the Edelman Page is “The Best of Applied Analytics”.  Even INFORMS (INFAA?) isn’t immune to trendy names.

5 thoughts on “Keep the Operations Research Name!”

  1. Yeah, “eBusiness” is a cautionary tale. I’m with you on avoiding an ever-changing name of trendy buzzwords and rather opting to keep the OR name. But then again, I am no longer cool and hip. If the “Analytics” brand is hip enough to snare MC Hammer, then maybe I should give it another chance??

  2. One problem that comes up when choosing a name for a field is how one calls the members of the field. While I’ve always found “operations researcher” to be a bit awkward, I wonder what we’d call ourselves if we named the field “analytics”. “Analyst” would seem to be the obvious choice, but that communicates nothing. In fact, it invites the same sort of confusion with medical practice that “operations research” often seems to (at least judging from my spam folder…), maybe even more so (“I have an appointment with my analyst….”).

    Back-forming “analyticist” doesn’t help much, either.

  3. Matt raises an interesting point about “Analytics”. Perhaps an Analytics professional could be referred to as:

    * “Analytics Practitioner” (in analogy with NPs), or
    * “Analytics Engineer” (a la Industrial Engineer, with the possible extension to “Certified Analytics Engineer”, a la CPAs), or
    * “Analytics Black Belt” (borrowing from Six Sigma), or if you want to go further out on a limb,
    * “Analytics Master” or its close relative “Master Analyst”.

    There doesn’t appear to be much room for confusing with other professions in any of the above.

    Analytics is a pithy descriptor for what OR folks do. I don’t see it as faddish, simply more consumer-friendly.

    As an thought emperiment, imagine ads for our profession on the 2, 3, 4, or 5 NYC subway lines:

    * “Five out of five successful CEOs recommend Analytics!”

    * “The subway can’t get you to the Baldrige Award. But an Analytics Practitioner can!”

    * “If you ain’t smokin’ Analytics, you ain’t smokin’ success!” (think vintage design)

    * “Nothing comes between me and my Analytics framework!”

    * “Profit pressures putting the squeeze on you? Call a Certified Analytics Engineer!”

    * Visualize a graphic of a beer can, followed in order by a + sign, the 2-d simplex diagram, an = sign, and a graphic of an upward-sloping profitability chart, and below it, the slogan “Analytics is good for Anheuser Busch!”

    Just can’t do that with “Operations Research”. Not even in InfoWorld ads!

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